Poppy seed tea can kill you (repost)

Almost exactly two years ago, I posted the following story at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata. I was drawn to revisit this moving, tragic story yesterday after reading a post by organometallic chemist Sharon Neufeldt at I Can Has Science? entitled, Morphine, Heroin, and Lemon Poppy Seed Cake. In honor of Tom's courage and the memory of his son, this repost is a fitting adjunct to Sharon's essay.
The following post appeared originally on 31 March 2009 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata. A little over a week ago, we posted on the very sad story of the accidental death of a University of Colorado sophomore from ingesting poppy seed tea. The poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the commercial source for prescription narcotic painkillers such as morphine and codeine. The seeds can be had online and in retail stores. The plants can often be grown if these seeds are not roasted or otherwise sterilized. I had originally suspected that the CU-Boulder student had not used poppy seed tea but rather some other decoction of the plant itself. I had always contended that the seeds did not contain appreciable amounts of morphine, codeine, or other opiate-related molecules. However, it appears that I am wrong. Commenter Tom just shared with me the absolutely heartbreaking story of the death of his 17-year-old son from poppy seed tea:
Abel, Just a note regarding your statement: "A previous report has been that the student and friends were boiling up poppy seeds, but I was suspicious as those lack significant amounts of opiates.". Our son died 6 years ago from exactly the same causes as the man in this case. Except that my did in fact use only poppy seeds, in large amounts. Even though there is no Morphine in the seeds, they contain traces from the rest of the plant from the processing/harvesting. We have put up a Web site that includes the coroner's report stating that cause of death was indeed Morphine overdose from poppy seed tea. You can find our Web site at: http://www.poppyseedtea.com/
I spent some time on Tom's site, Poppy Seed Tea Can Kill You, and I just have to say that I am in awe of the effort and courage this gentleman has undertaken to keep other kids and other parents from experiencing the same tragedy. Related specifically to Tom's comment, he has courageously posted a redacted version of the medical examiner's report from 13 Sept 2003. Therein, the toxicology analysis of tissues, blood, and the tea his son ingested are detailed. On the third page, the content of the tea was quantified as having a "high level of morphine," 259 micrograms/mL. Calculating a lethal dose for morphine is difficult because previous use of morphine can causes significant tolerance, or resistance, to both the therapeutic and lethal effects of the drug. For example, a dose of 100-150 mg may be lethal to a person who has never taken morphine orally, but it is not unusual for cancer patients with chronic pain to take as much as 4,000 mg/day. Therefore, Tom's son could've received a lethal dose by drinking as little as a pint of the poppy tea he had prepared. The medical examiner himself concluded the opinion section of the report by saying:
Poppy seeds are the natural source of opioid analgesics. Although they contain extremely low levels of the drug, concentration of these compounds by brewing can result in potentially lethal levels. [emphasis mine]
Frankly, I don't know if I would have what it takes to set up such a website in my son's memory. But as Tom writes there:
Why do we have this site? When, as parents, we realized that our son was taking poppy seed tea, we saw it as a "natural herbal tea", prepared with an ingredient sold openly in supermarkets without any restrictions, and thought that it was acceptable for him to do this. When we looked on the Internet for additional information on it, we did find several sites that talked about it, but none stated clearly that this tea contained morphine and that these levels could potentially be lethal. Even after our son's overdose accident, we were surprised to find out that even within the medical community, the fact that the morphine content in poppy seed tea can be very high is not widely known. The purpose of this Web site is to hopefully have it show up in Internet search results for people researching the subject. Mostly for curious users experimenting with it, like our son was, but also for concerned parents looking to understand the risks that their children may be undertaking. We can only wish that we had seen the information provided on this Web site when we did our Internet search trying to understand what the risks were. Please share with others...
Yes, we will share with others. I am deeply appreciative of Tom stopping by and raising my awareness of the dangers of poppy seed tea. Again, I am in awe of his selflessness in providing this information and establishing his website. My hope is that our post here popularizing his message increases the dissemination of the message on the danger of using poppy seed tea.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Thanks for the repost, very moving.

    Just a note, the I can Has Science? (a favorite of mine as well) is by SHARON not Jennifer.

    • David, thanks so much – I can’t believe I went through putting in all of those links and then got Sharon’s name wrong!

      I’ve fixed it and also sent her an email of apology. Thanks for the heads-up.

  2. Thank you for sharing this tragic story with the wider community and raising people’s awareness of the dangers involved in experimenting with toxins – even ones that can be purchased in a supermarket. I had no idea about this until reading this post and as a new toxicology student at Adelaide University it has stimulated my interest in learning more about such lethal, yet “generally accepted” toxins in order to try to prevent horrible accidents like this from happening in the future.